The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office is using a new cyber sting program to combat human sex trafficking.
The agency has joined forces with the Tampa-based U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking (USIAHT), to use an approach that attacks the demand-side of sex trafficking by targeting and identifying online sex buyers through the use of intercept bots.
Here’s how it works: The bots are used to create fake sex ads that are posted online as part of a cyber sting operation. A bot, posing as an individual looking to receive money for sex, communicates directly with all responders to the ad. During communication, the bot collects data from the sex buyers and sends it to law enforcement, eventually ending the conversation by informing the sex buyers that they have been communicating with a robot, that law enforcement has their information, and sends them resources for rehabilitation programs.
Data collected about the sex buyer may contain their name, phone, address, cell carrier, place of employment city, zip code and additional information.
From there, the sheriff’s office will seek to arrest and prosecute known offenders, particularly those that search out underage victims for sex.
The new program was introduced at a recent news conference.
“We’re going to know who you are,” said Pasco Sheriff Cpl. Alan Wilkett, referring to the potential sex buyers.
“If you’re going to buy sex in Pasco, this is your buyer-beware warning. Instead of engaging a victim and preying upon their vulnerabilities, you might be talking to us,” said Wilkett, who heads up Pasco’s human trafficking task force.
The bot program officially launched countywide July 9.
The Pasco Sheriff’s Office is believed to be the first agency in Florida to utilize the technology to combat human sex trafficking.
It is being funded privately by the USIAHT through donations from a group of foundations and individual donors.
The USIAHT approached the sheriff’s office nine months ago about implementing the program.
The Microsoft-developed bot technology was first introduced on the west coast by an anti-trafficking organization called Seattle Against Slavery.
Officials with USIAT suggest the bots can communicate with thousands of buyers simultaneously.
Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco said the technology should save his agency time, money and other resources. Deputies no longer will have to spend the time to set up fake sex ads and communicate with buyers through cyber sting operations.
“It makes us much more effective to go after people,” the sheriff said, adding cyber sex stings are “intensive operations” for law enforcement agencies.
Sex trafficking an issue in Pasco, Tampa Bay
Before the program was implemented, the USIAHT performed a case study in Pasco and Tampa to determine the scope of sex trafficking and prostitution.
The findings were staggering.
Stephanie Costolo, USIAHT’s regional manager for Florida, said her team discovered more than 32,000 local ads on sex-selling sites across a two-month period.
The organization also counted hundreds of websites, apps and secret social media groups “dedicated to the purchase and sale of sex.”
“We have a lot of sex buyers here in Pasco County,” said Costolo.
For the next 45 days to 60 days, the USIAHT will deploy the bots to collect even more information on the landscape of human sex trafficking in Pasco.
They hope to get better estimates on the number of sex buyers in the county and to determine how aggressively they pursue minors for sex, among other data.
Many of the bot profiles, at least initially, will be set up as minors looking to sell sex — allowing the sheriff’s office to better target “the worst of the worst” offenders.
“We’re looking for repeat callers. We’re looking for people who are continuing to hit these ads,” Wilkett said.
Florida typically ranks third in the nation for calls about incidents of human trafficking, behind California and Texas, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
Tampa Bay usually ranks fourth in the state for the number of such calls.
Officials say the region’s attraction as a tourism destination, along with having international airports and deep-water seaports, “increase vulnerabilities” for human sex trafficking. Hosting large sporting events and conventions also lends to the problem: “We have a lot of potential (sex) buyers that come in when those kinds of things happen,” Wilkett said of major events.
Meanwhile, the intercept bot technology is part of a larger initiative through the USIAHT called the Trafficking Free Zone program. In addition to trying to reduce the demand for sex trafficking by arresting and prosecuting sex buyers, the program also focuses on educating the community on sex trafficking and offering resources for victims, as well as those struggling with sex and/or porn addiction.
“We have to get educated to understand what sex trafficking looks like in our community,” Costolo said. “We have to get enraged that this is happening to our children — and we have to get engaged.”
Published July 18, 2018